I mean really, with all of its iconic flaws and deep history of regression, it's always been remarkable to me how the best art-literature, music and visual works-are created from progressive minded southerners.
Take for example, The Foreign Exchange. This North Carolina based duo, consisting of one Phonte Coleman, the rapper/singer of Little Brother fame, and Nicolay, a sonic intellectual from the Netherlands, regularly creates some of the most atmospheric, modern soul music currently populating the music blogosphere and digital music players everywhere. You won't hear The Foreign Exchange on commercial radio, but then why would you want to?
Admittedly, I've only recently given up on my childhood era notion that good music can find a lane in the popular music formats that dominate the airwaves. I mean, weren't Michael, Janet, Stevie, Marvin, Prince, Luther and Anita popular on commercial radio? So what the hell happened? I am certainly not suggesting that all "popular" music is crap-- but most of it is. And at a minimum, the music that dominates airwaves and iTunes is certainly not of the artistic quality of say "Daykeeper," the Grammy-nominated breakthrough single from The Foreign Exchange's epic 2008 release, Leave It All Behind. Yet "Daykeeper" is not even the best song from FE. Just going back to the same album, I would put "House of Cards" and their remake of Stevie Wonder's "If She Breaks Your Heart," above it.
So despite a naïve, momentary slip that occurred when I recently interviewed Phonte and Nicolay, both of whom were inhabiting different cities in NC at the time, I no longer harbor thoughts of quality soul, jazz, or even hip-hop music dominating the radio airwaves, or even swimming amongst the crap to make it all more digestible. So what I've accepted is that The Foreign Exchange model: a completely independent musical act that nevertheless offers impressive retail product via CDs, apparel and other branded stuff, tours internationally and often, and maintains a large online presence, is the new form of stardom.
Check their already remarkable size catalogue of Foreign Exchange music, from themselves and associated artists like Zo!, YahZarah and rapper Median. Their latest studio album, 2010's Authenticity, is complimented by their more recent live album, 2011's Dear Friends: An Evening With The Foreign Exchange. These cats have established their own FE movement, and they are bringing it here to Hampton Roads, tonight, for their first concert ever in southeastern Virginia. Shaka's in VA Beach will host Phonte, Nicolay, Zo!, the sexy Sy Smith, Jeanne Jolly and a live band. Peep excerpts from our recent phone conversation about art, artistry and winning:
What took so long for you guys to play Hampton Roads?
Phonte: It's just taken this long for things to come together. I feel confident about it and I'm glad we're able to do it. It's gonna be a good show. I'm excited about it.
Phonte, there's something really special for me, about witnessing you back together, collaborating with producer 9th Wonder. I know he did a lot of production work on your recent solo album, Charity Starts at Home. Are you guys in a good place where you'll likely collaborate in the future?
Phonte: Yeah we're always talking about more ideas...We're always listening for the next thing. We've been touring together, doing shows. It's been really good. We've been able to connect in a way, in our thirties, that I don't think we have done in our twenties. We have much more of an appreciation for our careers and the craft now...We're definitely gonna do some more work together.
When is the follow-up to Authenticity coming out?
Phonte: We have some musical ideas already, that Nic's been putting together. I have some vocal ideas, just some stuff that's been floating in my head. We're definitely gonna do it next year. In terms of a timeline, we're pretty much gonna put it out once it's done. It won't be a big set up. I really can't give cats a date. This go-round, Nic and I decided that we didn't want to work on a deadline per se. We just really want to work at our own natural pace. And once it's done, we just get it out there.
Yeah, y'all kind of shocked me with the release of Authenticity. As a person who keeps up, I was aware that it was coming out, but the setup for it was very subtle, I would say-- especially considering the success of Leave It All Behind. Was that intentional for some reason, or just the situation that y'all were in?
Nicolay: I think that's pretty accurate. I think mainly, a lot of things went back to the way they were, before we got the Grammy nomination. When we did Leave It All Behind, outside of the fact that the album did really, really good, it was the Grammy nomination that gave it the legs that it ended up having, But honestly, not a lot changed because of that...So we did everything pretty much the same for both albums, we didn't specifically do anything different per se...
If there was one thing that I wish I could make happen for The Foreign Exchange, and its associated cats that come under the FE umbrella, it would be radio airplay. I really think if you guys were able to actually get some spins, a lot of the general listening audience would be really blown away by how your music recalls stuff that they can relate to. But, I guess that's a whole political process which I don't even understand myself, from what I've been hearing, in terms of getting spins.
Phonte: Nah, you understand it, if you understand money.
Phonte: If you understand going to your bank account and looking at how much you got in there for...you understand it. (laughs) That's all that it comes down to.
I get it... What does winning look like to Phonte?
Phonte: For me, I guess it really comes down to being able to do what you really want to do. I read an interview a while back with David Simon, the writer and director of The Wire on HBO... It was a show that always seemed to get heavy critical acclaim, but the viewership never seemed to go outside of a handful of people...It wasn't like The Sopranos, that was watched by a big demographic...So the interviewer asked him did he get frustrated [by that]. He was just like...if you can make a living saying what you want to say, then there's not much that you can be mad about. If you can tell the story that you want to tell, and do it without compromise, what is there to be mad at?